One year after the BP oil spill, Louisiana finds itself in somewhat familiar territory, caught in the middle of sometimes conflicting messages about the rate of its recovery from a catastrophic disaster.
While the comparison to Hurricane Katrina is both crude and inevitable, the state is indeed again facing a conundrum: How to emphasize its rapid recovery while still trying to hold BP accountable for the full extent of damage, which may take years to determine.
After all, one of several lasting paradoxes of hurricanes Katrina and Rita was that the storms and subsequent levee failures thrust Louisiana onto the national radar, galvanizing do-gooders from around the globe to flock to the region as “voluntourists.” More than five years later, it’s a movement that continues to help fuel the region's ongoing recovery.
Unfortunately for coastal Louisiana, the BP oil spill has not inspired the same kind of goodwill. And as the Gulf Coast holds it breath, waiting to see whether its 2011 summer season will rebound enough to compensate for the absence of BP cleanup workers, it looks like spiking gas prices and persistent fears about seafood safety could conspire to keep tourists away.
“We are not getting as much sympathy" from tourists, says Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who has launched a full-court press to repair the state’s public image in hopes of accelerating the tourism industry’s recovery. The campaign, called "Louisiana: Pick Your Passion," is part of a statewide effort to put Louisiana back into the national spotlight, and in a more positive light.
'Pick Your Passion'
The results of the Louisiana Office of Tourism's recently released "perception survey" suggested that regional and national travelers are still inclined to visit Louisiana, albeit in smaller numbers than before the spill.
“Regionally, people who were kept abreast of developments are feeling like the recovery is happening a lot quicker than expected,” Dardenne said, pointing to figures that show less than 18 percent of regional respondents feel devastation from the oil spill has been worse than that caused by the 2005 hurricanes. Last June, a majority of those surveyed — more than 42 percent — said they thought the destruction from the spill was worse.
Nationally, however, potential tourists aren’t nearly as optimistic. “Perceptions from a year ago are still burned in their minds,” Dardenne says. And while according to the study, concerns about seafood safety have declined, they continue to severely inhibit travel to the state. According to a separate study by Greater New Orleans Inc., the spill had the largest and most negative impact on public perceptions of—and consumer demand for — Gulf and Louisiana seafood.
But Carolyn Angelette, a real estate agent in Grand Isle, La., doesn't need statistics to know what she already sees every day. "The spill just put a stop to everything...everybody canceled their vacations [last summer' and wanted their money back. And sales never got better. What we're doing now is sitting and waiting, and it's very stressful."
NBC News' Brian Williams, who recently returned from Venice, La., was disconcerted to find so few visitors.
“The fact that, on no notice, we were able to get the best room at the best hotel — in the capital of sport-fishing, during a stunningly beautiful fishing season — is staggering," he said. "Now, of course, they’re facing a huge conundrum: How much noise do they continue to make about how much oil is still out there?"
According to Dardenne, Louisiana is now better poised to make the most a second wave of BP funding, of which $30 million is being used to promote tourism. Dardenne is hoping that the “Pick Your Passion” campaign will not only help to assuage people's fears about seafood safety, but will also lure them back to one of the nation’s culturally rich regions.
Of course, some perceptions won't be easily altered by a PR campaign. Even some locals who are dependent on the credibility of the Gulf Shrimp brand are so distrustful of any authority in the aftermath of this disaster that they themselves are not eating all the seafood — even when it’s been a staple of the family diet for generations.
For many others, uncertainty about the safety of the local seafood is not enough of a deterrent. As Dean Blanchard, a fifth-generation shrimper in Venice, told Williams earlier this week, “I’d rather die if I can’t eat shrimp. I quit eating for a week, and I decided I’d rather die than not be able to eat shrimp.”
It’s a highly sensitive issue among local residents. James Peters, a charter fishing boat captain, “People down here are tired of focusing on the oil, you know. To me it's still around, but they think it's still scaring off business — it's keeping people from eating the seafood, it's keeping people from coming around and doing recreational fishing. It seems to me that science is the only thing that can [correct] that.”
While seafood industry advocates like Tommy Cvitanovich, chairman of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and owner of the New Orleans restaurant Drago's, insist the fish is "pristine clean" thanks to tightened inspections, others worry that it's still too early to tell.
Karen Terrebonne, of the Seafood Shed in Golden Meadow, La., says her customers constantly ask her whether the food is truly safe to eat. "'Are you sure it's good?' they say. I tell them, 'That's what they say.' But I don't know. No one will know until down the road."
“It's a juggling act right now,” says Billy Nungesser, the Plaquemines Parish president who quickly became a populist hero in coastal Louisiana for his outspoken criticism of BP’s and the federal government’s response to the spill. “I ate seafood last night and the seafood’s great — better than it’s ever been. When you take six months off from fishing, you can go out and catch your limit in 30 minutes, and that’s all across Louisiana. But we’re juggling telling people, ‘Come back to Louisiana,’ when, without the media, we don’t have a lot of stroke in keeping BP and the federal government’s feet to the fire.”
By Williams' estimation, those with an established affinity for the state won't stay gone for long. And as he readily admits, a work trip to the Gulf is no hardship. "I've always believed that when it comes to southern Louisiana, you either get it or you don't ... it's impossible to stand there on the Gulf and not see the romance in what is truly a way a life. It's just sad that that's a cliche."
And for those who don't already "get" Louisiana, Lt. Gov. Dardenne is hoping to help them get past the cliches.
“We just want to make sure that Louisiana’s resilience is part of the story," he said. "We’re not down here shaking our heads and crying into pools of oil.”